June 11 2017
Genesis 1.1-2.4a; Psalm 8.1-9; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
What is God like? You may say “Loving, mighty, holy, just”, or perhaps, from Paul Tillich, “the ground of our being.”
The Bible gives us many descriptions of the actions of God and of the relationship to God we are offered; however, the Bible never describes God as such. The Old Testament has the idea that anyone seeing the face of God must die. In the New Testament, Jesus never tries to capture God except in parable and image.
The writers of the New Testament letters, and especially Paul, pull together the strands of belief in God; while never using the word “Trinity”, Paul is perhaps the originator of this way of describing God.
Alongside the sense of joy and good news that is communicated through the gospel, the Bible sustains an equal sense of awe about the greatness of God. God is holy, and holy means “otherness.” God is beyond what we can imagine. Looking at God, we are like an ant looking up at an elephant.
Today is Trinity Sunday and so I would like to think about what we mean when we say the word “God.” There is a great deal of sloppy thinking about God even, perhaps especially, in the church. We are inclined to get too chummy in the way we speak of God – that God is our friend, our mate, and no more. The biblical view of our relationship with God is so much more profound than that.
Our Old Testament lesson illustrates the difficulty of our subject. God creates the world, but God himself is simply assumed in the passage. We can say that Genesis describes a creating God but only as it describes God’s actions. It doesn’t address the basic question, “What do we mean by God,” “Who is God?”
The short passage we read from the end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is of some help to us – God is described as “the God of love and peace”. But again we can argue that this is more a description of God’s relationships to us than it is a description of God as such. The ending verse picks up a Trinitarian formula – Jesus, God (we might say, as Father) and Spirit – but goes no further in its description of God. Our Matthew reading has the Trinitarian formula too but again doesn’t expound upon it.
If we consider God himself – or herself – we illustrate the changes since biblical times in how we use language. For many today, gender-specific ways of speaking of God get in the way; but so too does the impersonal use of “it”. We live in complicated times!
The Trinity is at the forefront of the creative thinking of the early church, and especially of Paul. St Athanasius, writing many hundreds of years ago about one of the passages we have just read, says:
“Paul also in the second letter to the Corinthians gives the same teaching in these words ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ For grace and the gift which is given in the Trinity is given by the Father through the Son, so with us the fellowship of the gift cannot be brought about except through the Holy Spirit. If we have received the Spirit, then we have the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Spirit himself.”
If you consider this carefully you will see that the Trinity is used by the early church to explain the manner of the experience of God, rather than as a method of describing the nature of God himself.
This is also true of St Augustine of Hippo, one of the great formative thinkers of the 4th century. In his book De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”) he describes twenty different ways of describing God in three persons. These reflect largely how we relate to God, but also indicate a little of God himself. Alongside Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he describes God as Lover, Beloved, Love (God the lover, Jesus the beloved – remember the words of God to Jesus at his baptism “You are my Son whom I love”; the Spirit in turn is love).
This is not far from another formulation for the Trinity, “Mother, Child, Womb”. God is the creator who brings the world to birth; Jesus the Son; we are held safely in God’s will being formed into what God is wanting us to be – like the baby in the womb.
The question asked so often today – “Does God exist?” – is not addressed in the Bible. The Bible does not present a reasoned argument for the existence of God. That is assumed. For example, in Psalms 14 and 53, the Psalmist says “The fool says in their heart, ‘There is no God.’” There is no attempt to argue the position. The Psalmist simply expresses the moral vacuum such “fools” find themselves in.
It is never easy to get into the thinking of people who lived 2,000 years ago – we have assumptions and experiences that they didn’t have – and they had assumptions and experiences that we don’t have.
Today we have so much knowledge. Our society is arranged around knowledge. Science and technology have greatly affected our ways of thinking. The Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries has changed the way we look at life. We have a massive task before us if we wish to understand fully how Paul or Peter or James or Augustine thought about the things they wrote.
It is not that we have chosen to think differently, it is not a sin that we do – but it is a part of who we are. It is not that the biblical writers were wrong to think as they did and we are right to think as we do. Neither nor we have a choice. It is also not true to say that we cannot learn from them. There is a great deal that we can learn. After all, the Bible writes a lot about human experience, and human nature doesn’t change. There is however a great danger in fundamentalism as we see it today – when people try to take the literal words of specific verses and apply them without grasping the wider biblical revelation or of recognising how differently we see the world.
One of the criticisms made today about the language of Trinity is that it seems to be male dominated – is the female not also in God? The tradition of the church over the years is very much to affirm this. The 16th-century French Reformed theologian John Calvin, who had such influence upon the Church of Scotland, surprisingly enough was the one who said “No figure of speech can describe God’s extraordinary affection towards us; for it is infinite and various… God has manifested himself to be both… Father and… Mother.”
Poetry and parable best describe God. There is an ancient Indian parable about how we relate to God:
A group of blind people are walking through a forest when they come into a clearing. They sense that there is something standing there. One person reaching out feels something broad and firm unmoving in the ground; she says, “It’s alright, it’s only a tree trunk.” The second feels something brushing against him, and he says “No, it’s only rushes blowing in the wind.” A third feels something cold and moving constantly flexing to and fro. She calls out, “Be careful – it’s a snake.” A forth feeling the sun cut out as he moves into the shade. He says. “No, it’s only a canopy sheltering us from the sun.”
Then a sighted person enters the clearing and asks, “Why are you all touching that elephant? – One its leg, one its tail, one its trunk and one underneath it.”
The same reality, but perceived differently.
There is one reality of God, beyond ourselves, which we know but poorly. But the lifelong quest to know God more is always rewarding and always worthwhile.